Progressive action: Safety first with Indians' exercise
CLEVELAND -- The bearded black man in the red hooded sweatshirt and camouflage cap stormed into the room, brandishing a .38 revolver and a menacing look in his eye.
"Everybody!" he yelled. "Up against the wall! Up against the wall!"
We did as instructed, placed our hands above our heads and stared straight ahead.
"All right, listen!" the man barked. "This is serious! Don't any of y'all move! Any funny business, and I'll start wasting people. I will cancel all of you if I have to!"
We didn't want to be wasted. We didn't want to be canceled.
We were just happy this was all a drill.
The man with the gun was, in fact, a Cleveland cop, playing the role of the villain in this fictional terrorist attack on Progressive Field on Tuesday. My fellow "hostages" in the press interview room were actually Cleveland Fire Department trainees. The Indians had partnered with the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and various emergency response agencies to stage this full-scale emergency exercise, in which a bombing and a hostage situation were staged.
"We envisioned this as a jewel event in baseball, an All-Star Game," said Cleveland Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba, "with 42,000 people in the ballpark, 1,000 media from around the country and the world, people in the restaurants, shops and bars. It would have been a very difficult task."
Alas, we don't live in a world in which such tasks and terror are inconceivable. What happened last week in Boston, where two lunatics set off bombs near the finish line of one of the world's most famous marathons, only underscores the uncertainty of high-profile public events. Sports, our communal experience, are, sadly, at or near the top of the list of potential targets.
In the wake of the Boston attack, I asked Terry Francona, who has managed in his fair share of high-profile games, if he's ever been fearful of going to the park in this post-9/11 era.
"Fearful of going to the park," he said, "but not for those reasons. Seen some of those Philadelphia pitchers out there?"
The point was taken. Those of us who spend a great deal of our time at these facilities -- for work or for pleasure -- can't afford to let such fears dominate our thoughts, lest we lose our minds.
But those in charge of our safety -- be it the police and response crews or stadium operations personnel -- have to think about the unthinkable, have to acknowledge and address, somehow, our inherent, unfortunate vulnerability.
That's why Tuesday's event was attended by security staff for Major League Baseball, as well as representatives from several other teams, including the White Sox, Astros, Phillies, Padres, Blue Jays, Pirates, Rays and Orioles.
"We set a high standard for Major League Baseball," Tomba said. "I know this will be duplicated as time goes by."
This particular exercise wasn't scheduled in response to the Boston Marathon bombings; it had actually been in the works for months. Local authorities stage these drills every so often -- at the two nearby airports, at the Quicken Loans Arena, at Cleveland Browns Stadium and on local college campuses -- to have their personnel prepared, and the Indians offered up their home park as a staging ground.
The reporting authorities at Tuesday's event coordinated their responses just as they would in a real situation and even pushed out "updates" through various social media platforms (each with the necessary "THIS IS AN EXERCISE" forewarning attached) for practice in real-time reporting. All involved will be graded on their work, Tomba said.
Everything that happened here was fake, but the evil in this world is all too real -- real enough that when the Associated Press' Twitter account was hacked and pushed out a phony alert that the White House had been attacked, enough people believed it to send the Dow Jones industrial average spiraling downward. We're all on edge.
So when the man with the gun stood behind me in that press room in the bowels of the ballpark and the sounds of screaming and walkie-talkie chatter could be heard through the door, well, it didn't take much creativity to imagine this type of thing taking place in real time.
"I want to talk to somebody!" the man yelled through the door at police.
"Sheriff's Office!" came the response.
"I don't want no Sheriff's Office! I want to talk to somebody!"
Behind me, I heard the man cock his gun, and I heard the blast. The fact that he had shot a blank did nothing to distill the volume in this small room. My ears were still ringing as the Sheriff's Office SWAT team barreled its way through the door, coming to our rescue.
Outside, at Gate C, members of the Region 2 Urban Search and Rescue department combed the ballpark. There were mannequins pinned under concrete beams, mimicking, on a very small scale, what the concourse might look like after an explosion. Fire trucks filled a southbound lane on East Ninth Street, and more SWAT team members lined the streets of my city.
We generally don't like to think about how realistic such a scenario is. But I'm thankful there are people who do.